What lots of folks don't remember about American's most famous Revolutionary voice, Thomas Paine, is that Teddy Roosevelt called him, once upon a time, a "filthy little atheist." Paine, a wild-eyed political pamphleteer who wrote "Common Sense" ("These are the times that try men's souls. . .") and a number of other hot items at the outset of the American Revolution, was an pedal-to-metal political activist (that's a rather sympathetic description), or what my father used to call "an agitator" (that's not). To a solid conservative like my father, change was almost always questionable, especially (somebody remember this language?) "change for change sake.
Thomas Paine believed in little more than change.
Anyway, it's easy, after 250 years or whatever, to make a saint out of Thomas Paine; after all, without him there may well not have been an American Revolution. His writing galvanized the rag-tag patriots; and while he wasn't at the original Tea Party, he certainly was there in spirit. Were he there, he would have undoubtedly tossed the first barrel. Once the Revolution was over, however, Paine left town and went on to the next world hot spot, France, where there was more revolution a'brewing.
To me, it's greatly understandable that Eldridge Cleaver really got off on Thomas Paine because Eldridge Cleaver, a name and a man now mostly forgotten, was a lot like him, really. I will happily admit reading Cleaver's Soul on Ice somewhere around 1970, I think, probably here in northwest Iowa, where, at the time, you'd have to drive an hour to find a real African-American.
I can see that book yet, although it's no longer on my shelves. I can feel its power, even though it's long gone. Like nothing else I read back then, Soul on Ice opened up a new reality--the horror of slavery and Jim Crow and continuing racial discrimination in America. I was a kid, this country's central cities were burning, and Eldridge Cleaver helped me understand wherefore the flames.
And then, a decade later, Soul on Ice became Soul on Fire and the evangelical Christian world rejoiced because the hated Black Panther had found the Lord and become a born-again Christian. A whole new lecture circuit opened for him. I'm not sure my father ever heard of Cleaver or either of his books, but if he had, he would have been proud when Cleaver announced that Jesus was Lord of his life.
Maybe a bit easier said than done, however. For the only real constant in Cleaver's life, finally, was his search for meaning. Regardless of his various professions of faith (he once flirted with Sun Yung Moon's Unification church and actually, later, became a practicing Mormon), he continued to dally in crime throughout his life as well--burglary, lots of addiction problems, mostly cocaine. At the end he was an environmentalist, an agitator for creation itself, someone who said, "I've gone beyond civil rights and human rights to creation rights.
Politically, he was all over the map, just as he was geographically (for a time, he took refuge from the law in Cuba and even North Korea). Once upon a time, amazingly, he ran for political office as a conservative Republican. I'm not making this up.
But I'll never forget Soul on Ice because the book altered the way I looked at racial problems in this country; it taught me some things about life in the Black community that I would have not learned without it. Without a doubt, it made me more progressive in my politics than my father could have ever understood.
Cleaver himself was no more solid a character than was Thomas Paine, but at least he wasn't an atheist, having subscribed for a time to all kinds of religions during his all-over-the-block life. Neither of them were saints, but both of them affected their cultures deeply--I'm not the only one who was deeply influenced by Soul on Ice.
We are His workmanship, Paul says. We are what God does--he's always making us, shaping us, forging character. We're clay. He's the potter, the Bible says.
Some of us never change--Dick Cheney. Some of us wander all over the place, all over the world--Eldridge Cleaver.
Cleaver died sometime in the 90s, but that book of his, long gone from my life, is, for better or for worse, still very much a part of who I am, as books can be and are. When I see Soul on Ice in my imagination, I can still feel its power.
Were he still with us, today would have been his birthday.
Eldridge Cleaver--what a story.